Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Our president on the phone
Our president on the phone
Photo: Getty

There’s going to be professional baseball soon, which is great news for sports fans everywhere.

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This is reportedly going to happen in South Korea, which turns out to be terrible news for fans of common sense in the United States.

In reporting on the preparation for a new Korean season, Jeff Passan and Alden Gonzalez of ESPN wrote this weekend: “regardless of KBO’s return date, it might not provide much of a road map for MLB: The United States has failed to replicate almost all of Korea’s institutional successes (in containing COVID-19) that allow the KBO to even consider playing again.”

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And, in fact, despite South Korea – which had its first confirmed positive test on the same day the U.S. did – having had a better handle on coronavirus than pretty much any country on Earth, that nation “is bracing for a second wave of infection” according to an NBC report and isn’t back to normal just yet.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is spending his time talking to American sports commissioners and pressing for a swift return of America’s leading distraction from reality. NBA commissioner Adam Silver — whose league has been at the center of the pandemic story in the sports world — for better and for worse, came out on Monday and threw cold hand sanitizer all over such a notion, saying, “We should accept, that at least for the month of April, we won’t be in a position to make any decision. I don’t think that necessarily means on May 1, we will be.”

Baseball is not burdened by such rational thinking, as shown by some of the game’s top pitchers going in for elective surgery in the middle of a pandemic that has led to shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers trying to save lives instead of multimillion-dollar careers.

So, here comes Rob Manfred’s cabal, floating a trial balloon through ESPN, where Passan wrote late Monday night, “Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May and has the support of high-ranking federal public health officials who believe the league can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.”

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The first question here is which high-ranking federal public health officials? Because this doesn’t sound like anything Dr. Anthony Fauci would get behind. In particular, this part of Passan’s report doesn’t ring true to the idea of public health best practices: “While the possibility of a player or staff member testing positive for the coronavirus exists, even in a secured setting, officials do not believe that a positive test alone would necessarily be cause to quarantine an entire team or shut down the season, sources said.”

MLB issued a statement on Tuesday morning that neither confirmed nor denied that this is a real possibility. Given that it’s not a flat-out denial, that makes it read as if this is indeed an attempt to figure out if they can get away with it.

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Under this plan, MLB would operate out of the Diamondbacks’ home park, the 10 Phoenix-area spring training facilities, and “perhaps other nearby fields,” while “players, coaching staffs, and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium.”

Did you spot the squishy pile of bullshit where this whole thing falls apart? That’s right, it’s “other essential personnel” and “relative isolation.”

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is going too hard to bring baseball back before the country is ready.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is going too hard to bring baseball back before the country is ready.
Photo: Rob Tringali (Getty Images)

Even with no fans in attendance, staging Major League Baseball games would require more “essential personnel” than most people think about. Obviously, these games aren’t happening if they can’t be televised to entertain the stuck-at-home masses, so that means some kind of production team on site. But there’s even more that goes on behind the scenes. Unless Mike Trout is going to start washing all the Angels’ uniforms and Kris Bryant is going to hop on a riding mower and cut the outfield grass, somebody is going to need to handle clubhouse chores and groundskeeping. There might not be vendors hawking hot dogs and beer, but players and coaches aren’t going to show up at the ballpark before games to prepare, go through a full game, and then cool off after the game without eating or drinking anything at all. So unless Clayton Kershaw is ducking out to hit the In-N-Out drive-thru for everyone, you can add some form of catering to the “essential” mix. These facilities don’t just open and close themselves, and somebody has to keep fans from just showing up and sneaking in to watch baseball, so they’re going to need security, too.

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Is Major League Baseball going to put a whole legion of TV production staff, clubhouse workers, groundskeepers, foodservice workers, security guards, and more into “local hotels … in relative isolation” along with the players? And are those people, who aren’t exactly on Bryce Harper’s contract, also going to be asked to be separated from their families from May through October? That’s a crazy enough thing to ask the players to do; it’s almost cruel to ask the same of the working-class people that would be necessary to make these games possible.

Not that cruelty matters to the Trump administration and the billionaires who want to get their money fountain flowing again. But the other option is to have those same people commuting to and from their homes around Phoenix, which blows up the whole “relative isolation” thing.

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Of course, “relative isolation” is a farce to begin with, because the people who work at the hotels definitely won’t suddenly become hotel guests with rooms paid for by Major League Baseball. Who knows who else will be visiting these hotels, and what kind of germ trades might go on in the public spaces that players will be frequenting?

Another thing that needs to be considered is that not only might some players want to take the risk of participating in this folly, there are many who we already know might be at risk. Chad Bettis, Carlos Carrasco, and Anthony Rizzo are among those major league players who are cancer survivors, and Trey Mancini, the Orioles’ best player last year, had a malignant tumor removed from his colon during spring training. That’s not even to mention players who may have at-risk family members, because presumably, again, this cockamamie plan involves separating everyone from their families for the entire summer.

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There are 780 players on major league rosters at any given time, though there were 1,410 players who appeared in major league games last season. You’re likely looking at more than 1,000 – and maybe almost 2,000 – people necessary to stage an unnecessary exhibition — one whose main purpose is to recoup a little bit of money for some extremely wealthy people — while making Trump look like less of an asshole for the fact that his bungling of the pandemic response has led to a situation where it’s going to take much longer for the United States to get back to normal than other countries.

That last part is going to come into much sharper focus soon, too, because once South Korea starts playing baseball, those highlights are going to make it to action-starved American sports networks and American sports fans. As other countries also ramp back up, and ESPN has to put an emphasis on the “worldwide” part of “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” it’s going to make Trump look like an even bigger asshole. And that’s the entire reason Trump had the commissioners on the phone over the weekend: to ask them to help him look better, the only thing he ever cares about anyway.

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We’ve already seen how sports can serve as a vector for spreading coronavirus. That’s why sports shut down in the first place. That’s why Silver isn’t going to rush the NBA back into business. That’s why it’s a terrible idea for baseball to try a stunt like “relative isolation” to put on a season in Arizona, a state that has already seen 65 deaths from coronavirus, and a state that is one of the top destinations for American retirees — an age group that has been disproportionately victimized by COVID-19. But it’s also a state that has only had a stay-at-home order from the governor go into effect last week.

The worst in Arizona may be yet to come. It’s irresponsible for baseball to even consider such a selfish and short-sighted plan that serves zero public interest right now.

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